Emergency Communications If The Cell Network Went Down

Emergency communications

“Cell phones are great but before them people used CB’s (no license needed for CB), and today a lot of preppers are working on getting a ham license and buying a $30.00 radio.” says Chuck Findlay who recently commented here on MSB.

It doesn’t take a Mad Max grid-down World to have the cell network go down. Any terror attack and it gets overwhelmed.

I think I read that when the Boston Marathon bombing happened they shut down the cell network just in case there may have been cell phone bomb triggering devices.

No one wants their cell phone shut off but in this case I can understand (and agree) with doing so.

CB and Ham radio can fill the gap. And they are fun to use when there is no problem. I often (in the Summer) sit in the back yard with one of my hand held ham radios talking to friends within a 25-mile range of my house.

You can easily do the same thing with a $30.00 hand held ham radio and a ham license.

PS: Remember all those B-Grade movies in the 1970’s about CB radio?? As bad as they were they got a lot of people to buy a radio and install it in their auto.

Chuck brings up a great point which I’ve attempted to tackle a few times before here on the blog. Emergency communications.

There are a number of options available to us.
Some require a license from the FCC, others don’t.

2-way radios don’t rely on a working networking infrastructure (like cell phones).

They transmit and receive over the air waves – for free.

A 2-way radio will have some limitations for distance, but most work well for (at least) local or nearby communications.


CB Radio

One example is the good old CB radio. “Breaker 19, Breaker 19…” ;)

During my last long distance road trip I installed a CB in the truck and would listen to trucker-talk along the way (which can be amusing!). You can transmit and receive for many miles depending on antenna, terrain.


Handheld GMRS Radio

Around the property here we have a number of handheld GMRS 2-way radios so we can stay in contact while out and about. I live in some fairly rough wooded and mountainous terrain, so the effective distance between handhelds is about a mile (as long as I’m not behind a mountain). I can get several miles or more if line of sight without obstructions.

Midland GXT1000


Mobile / Base Station GMRS Radio

You can boost pretty significantly by installing a GMRS mobile / base unit in your vehicle or at home along with a good base antenna. (Could do the same with a CB radio).

I use the Midland MXT400 for a base station GMRS radio and have installed a high gain antenna outside. We have communicated between the base and my handheld 9 miles away out in the woods. Again, as long as there’s not a mountain in the way…

Midland Consumer Radio MXT400

I’ve also reached out 55 miles to a repeater without issue with this radio!

My antenna: Comet CA-712EFC

Other GMRS Antennas:
450-470 MHz Antennas

Note: The unit above operates on DC volts (e.g. car battery). If using as a base station it will require a 13.8 VDC power supply with sufficient power handling capability for it’s maximum transmitting power (plus a margin). In this particular case (40 watt) we’re looking at 3 amps plus a margin. I wouldn’t go less than 5 amps.

Inexpensive but effective 5 Amp Power Supply

I use this one (10 Amps) because it’s convection cooled (quiet) and brand reputation:
Samlex SEC-1212


HAM Radio

There are also “HAM” radio handhelds (and base stations) which operate on other frequencies which can also be used for over-the-air communications. They require a license from the FCC to transmit. It can be an enjoyable hobby too.


Transmitting Distance

Distance depends on frequency characteristics, atmospheric conditions, antenna, and other factors. Generally speaking the most effective way to increase your transmitting distance at high frequencies (e.g. GMRS) is to have a quality antenna, and the higher the better!

For preparedness sake, do not count on your cell phone.

I really feel good about having various 2-way radios for communications. I am well geared up with GMRS radios. A nice base station and antenna, a unit in the truck (with roof antenna), and a number of handhelds (Midland & Baofeng).

I could set up the neighbors with 2 way radios and we could all be in touch during a time of emergency or when it’s necessary. Great for added security.

We use these radios during ordinary times too.

What are your thoughts and experiences with this subject?

Related: Your Tiny World Without Communication & Transportation
Related: EMP Faraday Bag for your radios


  1. I still have my old CB and have kept it like new. I believe it will run on 12 volt or house current. The antenna has a magnetic base that you just stick on top of your car or truck, and then you just plug it into the cig. lighter socket. Pretty cool. I also have several sets of two way radios. One set hooks on your belt and has a wire to a small head phone with a windproof speaker system. Works with 9 volt batteries. A very old system, but it works great. It’s the last one I would get rid of. love it. I don’t think they make them anymore, not sure. I think it would be a good idea to have at least one set of two ways on hand. The modern ones are pretty good.

  2. We have FRS/GMRS handhelds, a CB radio, and chinese handheld Hams, also all of our “tribe” are similarly equipped. We use call signs and have “radio handshakes” 3 times weekly.
    We use one common frequency and each family uses their own frequency for family use.
    We also have alternate “tactical” frequencies for use in emergency. We have a good sized property with spotty at best cell coverage, so we use them fairly often and are very familiar and comfortable with them. Earpiece/microphone combos are super handy for hands free operation while working.
    I encourage everyone to get radios, although you are broadcasting in the clear, none of it goes through cell towers or internet connections, keeping your private conversations mostly private. Just do not forget charging capability for SHTF situations…having comm’s with your tribe will be a yuge! advantage.

  3. I can attest to the cell grid going down in my area for 3 days then spotty service for the next 3 days in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma

    It wasn’t really the towers that went down I called family immediately after the eye passed over us…
    The grid went down due to High volume of calls just like 911…
    This is a project I will be working on this year regarding HAM… Thanks for the links Ken.

  4. I have my dad’s CB in the Faraday.
    (Lol, Ken. It was always a blast to listen to the truckers on them.)
    We have a couple sets of el-cheapo handhelds. Used them during hunting season. I would like to purchase some additional sets of Motorola’s with a longer mile range in the near future.
    That way bro, cuz, and us can communicate if need be.
    Good idea on the “radio handshake”

  5. What…..nobody uses smoke signals anymore?

    They work great to get a LEO to your location quick, and even quicker if you’re in a burn ban area. The LEO will bring along a radio that can talk for miles and miles, so you don’t need to have your own. Call it “Emergency Communications on a Budget”. ;)

    CD in Oklahoma

    1. CD in Oklahoma
      Oh hell no, I don’t want those SOBs any where close to me. HELL NO

      1. (Hehehe) I guess it all depends on what the “emergency is? I can think of some “emergencies” that wouldn’t necessarily require notifying the LEO guys (wink, wink), but it seems to me that they (who is “they”) used to teach the use of “Signal Fires” for emergency situations (plane crash, lost/injured hunter, etc) to assist helpers in finding the location. Do they still do that? I think that they also included a disclaimer, something to the effect of not setting the whole damned forest on fire, just a large enough fire to be seen. It doesn’t take much of a fire for the smoke to be seen out here on these flat grass lands. I made a note to self: No LEO for you.

        CD in Oklahoma

  6. Communications are a weak area for us . We live in a narrow crooked canyon . We do not receive cell service or am/ fm radio . We do use handheld Midland GXT walkie talkies . We found that they work good up to 1/2 mile away , dog leg canyon I guess makes them a little restrictive. I do have a friend that is well versed in radio communications. He is going to take a look at what we have and make some recommendations for our situation. Perhaps a high antenna, we’ll see. I would like a police scanner unit so I know what is going on of interest around us .
    Communications will be important in a SHTF scenario.

    1. Sounds like line-of-sight issues regarding your canyon. Pretty difficult with FRS/GMRS high frequencies (around 462 MHz).

      CB radio frequencies are a bit better with that (lower frequencies, around 27 MHz).

  7. Ken, nice reminder, especially now with all that is going on………. Again Thanks.

  8. As a amateur (ham) Radio operator, I think it would nice for everyone to get licensed. It can be a lot of fun. I have a great station set up at my home. I have talked to folks all over the world. There are a multitude of different modes and methods to explore. Just do it!

  9. Heck, i barely communicate now! Why would i communicate after 😎

    1. Aloha NB,
      I understand , silence is often golden, Communication is usually a 2 way exchange , but in a shtf situation, listening to what is going on in your area may be very beneficial to you.I am probably more concerned with listening to events unfolding or coming in my direction .

      1. Just remember that anything that goes out over the air is not private. A good scanner can pick you up and than a game of Fox and Hound can triangulate your location. Compare it to an old fashion party line. 73’s

    2. Because, Nailbanger, you are an outlier. We need to know you are ok. Then you can shut off the communication!!!!!

  10. Communication, at least within a community, is a critical prep. Not that long range communication is not important, rather that local communication is more so. Knowing what’s going on around you does much to calm fears and anxiety, and the ability to put out a call for assistance to neighbors who actually can respond within a reasonable time frame can save lives. Ask a police officer which he would rather give up, his shotgun or his radio. The same applies to a family unit or a small community.

    My family depends on the small handheld FRS and GMRS/FRS combination radios, with enhanced 40ch CB’s for each vehicle (we have four at this time in Faraday cans ready to be installed, one presently installed in a farm truck and one in a ATV). Like Ken, my surrounding terrain is mountainous and heavily wooded. Truthfully, I’ve experienced very little difference in performance between FRS and GMRS radios in these conditions. My experience has been 1/2 to 3/4 mile in the woods and 5 miles plus from my mountain top home to homes on surrounding ridge tops with either. We all use the FRS channels common between both radio types.

    Outside info is important and we have shortwave, AM, FM, and UHF receivers in Faraday cages for this purpose. Have considered Ham radios, but have put that off mainly due personal time constraints and the need for training. I probably should buy a couple of the cheap Baefongs(SP?) to have on hand and read up on their use when time permits.

    1. Dennis can I suggest you add a good scanner? Even if police is scrambling the volume of scrambled transmissions can be useful intelligence. I am unaware if scanners cover CB, FRS, GMRS and such. Can anybody tell me this? If so even more useful as even military has trouble enforcing communications discipline and thus useful information can be gleaned.

      1. (I am unaware if scanners cover CB, FRS, GMRS and such. Can anybody tell me this?)

        Yep lots of (as in most of them) scanners cover these frequencies.

        CB being below 30 MHz is not covered by as many scanners, but still a lot of them cover it.

        Always assume people are listening to you when you talk on any radio.

  11. I am an apartment prepper and have my LL Bean crank radio that I will use if needed in the ice storm coming to southern Ontario this weekend. If the power goes out in the condo, I will lend it to the superintendent who can use it to relay information to the entire condo community. He can post updates on paper on the bulletin board and residents can go to a central location in the lobby to get updates if needed. I am filling re-usable water bottles tonight and putting them in the fridge in case the power goes and water is not pumped up to higher floors. Today I purchased groceries and cooked some salmon which is in the fridge. I can eat it cold along with tinned canned food, salad, cold tomato soup, apple sauce, bread and almond butter, cereal, and even cold instant coffee for the caffeine fix. Then there are the apples, oranges, etc. (washing them all tonight). I did the laundry it is ready for use. I took out the trash and recycling in case the compacter gets shut off. Tomorrow morning another grocery run; I did 2 today. Three flashlights are in different rooms of the apartment.

    1. Granny’s wisdom ———if you do go out again (assuming there is any concern about loss of heat etc)…and if your budget can afford it….Try to pick up a warm sleeping bag or two (two zipped together may be warmer or more comfortable)..And also, if budget can stretch, a pop up tent. (I say pop up, because it can be easily assembled — popped up—in an apartment, not pounding stakes into the floor). Have seen quite a few videos/stories where folks did this inside and stayed mostly in the tent while heat was out….

    2. GW, we’re also preparing for the ice storm (looks like I’m you’re southern neighbor :)). They’re predicting up to an inch of ice later today and high winds. I bought a few cases of water and sandwich stuff that won’t need to be heated. We live in a very tree dense area so anticipating power outages. Trying to focus on this local event and not worry about everything that’s happening in Syria, hard to do though.

  12. Good Luck to everybody. Keep yer wits about you. Keep yer eyes and ears open.

  13. To everyone here. United States of America is at Defcon 2. I hope and pray for everybody’s safety. I have my Doubts about the future, God help us. I hope I’m wrong
    Gods Speed fellow Patriots.

    1. I looked just a few moments ago and saw DEFCON 4? I will look again, where did you find that Stand my Ground?

        1. I have been looking at a lot of sites. WOW, I guess I have no clue where we are at. Every where from Defcon 5 to Defcon 2. I haven’t a clue.

  14. I’m pretty sure it goes the other way. I’ve heard rumors of DEFCON 2, worldwide, effective tonight.

  15. Well, I heard the good news on the 5:30 news tonight, the missiles are flying. Now, it’s wait and see if the Russians respond. They threatened to retaliate by trying to shoot down in coming missiles and the platforms they were launched from.(i.e., planes, ships etc.) It may soon be game on. God help us if it is. Let us hope and pray it isn’t. If so, well it was nice having all the wonderful friends here on MSB. Also, all the talks about preps etc. will finally pay off. And if nothing happens, well, we will continue on, giving each other our best knowledge to survive. perhaps even have a laugh or two about this little scare. God Bless, BBC.

  16. Taken from the HalTurnerRadioshow dot com posting:

    “United States Armed Forces Ordered to set Defense Readiness Condition DEFCON 2 Worldwide.”

  17. I picked up a used set of motorola DTR 410 radios. These are digital, spread spectrum with a sophiticated encryption key. I dont think that they can be evesdropped . They can also transmit rudimentary text messages.

  18. No doubt a dumb question but here it goes. I have two GMRS hand helds I uses for the home and yard. If I buy the device Ken advertised – Midland Consumer Radio MXT400 Micro Mobile 40 W Mobile Gmrs Radio with antena – I can use that to reach my handhelds at a bit of a longer range? Just tune into the same channel? Thanks all

    1. Larry, Yes, you will get more range. 40 watts of power compared to just a few watts in a handheld (some may be up to 5 watts). That will help you reach out further, although it won’t help the lower powered handheld reach back.

      The biggest advantage for distance in these frequencies is height above ground for the antenna. A good high gain antenna (designed for the frequencies being used) as high as you can mount it will be the best thing you can do.

      This is especially helpful if you live with hilly terrain.

      My GMRS base antenna is the Comet CA-712EFC
      9 dBi gain

      Note though that if there’s a mountain in the way or an “L- canyon wall”, etc.., there’s nothing you can do. Radio waves at these high frequencies don’t ‘bend’ around corners. And they’re going to be attenuated by traveling through lots of trees and other obstructions on the way from your radio to the handheld and visa-versa.

  19. Has anyone looked into the goTenna mesh for emergency comm’s. I would think an 8 pack would cover most individuals area It uses your cell phone blue tooth to text message.

    1. Haven’t used it, but if it uses bluetooth, I do know that bluetooth is only good for about 30 to maybe 50 feet.

      1. The GoTenna uses Bluetooth to the cell phone (as a texting interface), but then it transmits via vhf to the other GoTenna units. Range is stated to be several miles, AND there is a “mesh” function, where a unit can be used as a relay (think ham radio repeater).

        I’ve looked at them, but have not yet purchased. Currently using GMRS handhelds. The advantage I see with GoTenna is less likelihood of eavesdropping, since it’s a text, not voice.

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